A Palm Beach County judicial candidate’s claim that her opponent’s legal chops are questionable because he represents “murderers, rapists, child molesters and other criminals” has inflamed criminal defense attorneys and raised concerns that Donald Trump tactics are being used in a county court race.
Comments Dana Santino made in an email last week about her opponent, Gregg Lerman, raise questions about her understanding of the U.S. Constitution which guarantees that anyone charged with a crime has the right to have an attorney represent them, attorneys said.
In a statement on Sunday, the president of the Palm Beach Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers made it clear the group isn’t backing either candidate in the nonpartisan race.
“However, we do support the Constitution of the United States,” wrote Christine Geraghty, an assistant public defender. “Every lawyer in Florida takes an oath to uphold the Constitution. Anyone who believes that there is something wrong with a lawyer upholding the ethical duty we have to our clients, to the Constitution, and to the rules of the Florida Bar does not understand how the legal system is supposed to work.”
Santino, a Palm Beach Gardens probate and guardianship attorney who worked as an intern in both the public defender’s and state attorney’s offices while she was in law school, said she understands the system.
“I completely respect and I’m proud of our justice system and while every person is entitled to a defense, Mr. Lerman is not a public defender and chooses to represent individuals who commit heinous crimes,” she said in a statement.
Lerman, a criminal defense attorney, said Santino’s description of his clients indicates she doesn’t understand another important Constitutional concept: innocent until proven guilty.
Further, he said in most cases he is appointed by judges to represent poor people accused of murder. Court-appointed attorneys are needed when the public defender’s office is unable to do so either because it is already representing a co-defendant or its workload doesn’t allow it.
Without private attorneys willing to accept such cases, the system would collapse, said Val Rodriguez, a private attorney who handles both criminal and civil cases and is supporting Lerman. “He’s performing a public service,” he said.
He said he was “flabbergasted” by Santino’s comments. “It’s so elementary. That’s why it’s so shocking,” he said. “It’s the first thing you learn in law school – to treat all parties with respect. You don’t call people criminals, especially if you’re a judge.”
Santino and Lerman are vying for a seat on the county court bench where misdemeanor cases and civil matters where less than $15,000 is at stake are decided.
Rodriguez likened Santino’s comments to criticism Trump leveled at Hillary Clinton during last week’s debate. The GOP presidential candidate accused Clinton of getting a man accused of raping a 12-year-old off and then laughing at the victim.
Early in her career, Clinton was appointed to represent the man, who ultimately took a plea deal. But, fact-checkers at the Associated Press said there is no evidence Clinton laughed at the victim when interviewed about the case years later.
Rodriguez said Santino is trying to tar Lerman with the same ugly brush. “She’s riding the coattails of these crazy Trump supporters,” Rodriguez said of Santino.
Santino said she is simply underscoring the differences between herself and Lerman. “I have spent part of my career and much of my life helping and advocating for victims of rape, homicide and domestic violence,” she wrote. “Those are simply the facts.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Clinton worked as an assistant public defender. She didn’t. She was appointed to represent the man in the rape case.